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Birth of a Nation and Culturally Responsive Education

Last week at the Murphy Institute, I had the pleasure of meeting Erika Ewing, an Educational Engagement Strategist who works with the CUNY Creative Arts Team. She had just finished running a workshop which engaged high school students in rigorous conversation about the film “Birth of a Nation” following an arranged screening of the film for them at an AMC theater. 

In the piece below, Ewing discusses the responsibility of educators to be open and honest with youth about American history, the ways in which non-traditional approaches to education challenges young people to think constructively and critically and how promoting more open discussion of films like Parker’s “Birth of Nation” plays a seminal role.

— Zenzile Greene, Arts and Culture Editor


“Don’t let your past define your future.” It’s a quote we’ve all heard some version of before. But when we’re confronted with our own dark pasts, how easy is it to take this advice?

I am an Educational Engagement Strategist, and I believe this is an important question for all educators to ask themselves when choosing culturally-responsive content and teaching American history. With this in mind, I recommended that all of my pre-HSE (High School Equivalency) use the 2016 Nate Parker film “The Birth of a Nation” as a tool for teaching and learning.

When it first came out, there was a lot of excitement and controversy surrounding the film, which features the life of slave insurrectionist Nat Turner.

I’d first heard reference to Nat Turner in the 1970s television sitcom Good Times, which depicts the life of a struggling Black family living in a Chicago housing project. In the episode, “Michael Gets Suspended,” the youngest son Michael Evans was suspended from school because he refused to honor George Washington because he owned black slaves. In the episode, their neighbor Willona Woods said to Florida Evans, “Well you got yourself an 11 year-old Nat Turner.” As a child growing up in the 70’s, I didn’t know what that meant. Forty-six years later, thanks to mainstream media and the controversy surrounding The Birth of a Nation, we know now — and we want to find out more.

There were many reviews and much negative press when it was revealed that Nate Parker, the filmmaker, was accused and later acquitted of raping a female student while a student at Penn State 17 years prior. And yet, while Parker’s past made the film controversial, it also added a layer of complexity and significance to the film. How can we deny our students access to American history simply because we question the messenger? What about the message?

Nat Turner’s life is noteworthy for many reasons. Most importantly, it highlights the many attempts made by black slaves in America to fight against systemic racism and oppression. The war between black slaves and their white slave owners on American soil is significant. It is no different than the bloody wars we teach in American and Global History classes today.

Some film critics and cultural intellectuals have dismissed this 48-hour slave insurrection story by saying that, because of Nate Parker’s past transgressions, we should not support this film. This is a missed opportunity and an educational tragedy — and it’s the work of educational privilege. Again and again, American history — which is Black history — has been hidden and withheld from the oppressed for fear of violence, retaliation, uprising and liberation.

So why are some undermining the importance of this film’s historical depiction of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion by using Nate Parker’s past personal strife as the source of contention and basis for dissuading the masses not to see the film? Is this a fear tactic to mitigate rage and insurrection in our youth against systems that seek to keep them powerless and afraid? Or is this a morality debate?

Some seem to believe that by watching the film and lifting up the work of Nate Parker, we are perpetuating rape culture in our society, and betraying women as a whole.  While this debate is provocative and important, how does it impact our ability to uncover Nat Turner’s story and learn its lessons in the fight for freedom?

African-American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic James Baldwin once said, “Rage cannot be hidden, it can only be disassembled. This disassembling deludes the thoughtless, strengthens rage and adds to rage, contempt.”

The pre-HSE population with which I work is primarily comprised of Black and Latino students who have been marginalized from the traditional educational system. These students, many of whose ties have been severed or who have severed their own ties from the traditional educational system, have voices that need to be heard. These students need exposure to stories like Nat Turner’s, which connect them to their own powerful histories, because it is through this exposure that they gain crucial access to their own voices. Without their voices, we’re left only to hear from elites: from college students, activists, cultural intellects, historical critics, and popular opinion poll makers.

We must give students access to the education that many of us missed in our youth. We can’t tell students to “get their educations” while failing to expose them to ideas that will catalyze their desires for social change and justice. We must help them acquire the depth of knowledge and develop the critical thinking skills necessary for academic achievement and college and career success.

The Six C’s  of 21st Education — “super skills” — are communicate clearly, think critically, work collaboratively, develop creativity, utilize connectivity, and embrace culture. In order to engage students in academic cognitive processes, we must make learning active and relevant. Let students draw their own comparisons, raise their own questions and make their own meaning.

Are we so set in our ways or too intelligent to see that a non-traditional approach to teaching and learning is what our disconnected youth need? How can we theorize about social emotional learning, cultural responsive teaching, and restorative justice, but fail to model these practices?

Is there no room in our educational landscape to ask separate sets of questions, one to address Nate Parker and one to address Nat Turner? We can ask students: should your past define your future? And, has Nat Turner’s slave rebellion impacted American History?

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
-Benjamin Franklin

On October 26, 2016, in NYC there was a private screening of, “The Birth of A Nation,” at the AMC Empire 25 Theater for students enrolled in Young Adult Literacy Programs. 86 students were in attendance along with their teachers, case managers, service-learning coordinators, and program directors. Following the film, there was an interactive reflection and talkback co-facilitated by Erika Ewing, and Dr. Byron E. Price, professor of Public Administration at Medgar Evers College.

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Erika Ewing is the Director of the CUNY Literacy Support Team. She has spent the last sixteen years using interactive drama strategies to build student learning, first as a teaching artist and then as Program Director with the CUNY-Creative Arts Team.

3 thoughts on “Birth of a Nation and Culturally Responsive Education”

  1. Our students were devestated to miss this amazing event. Thank you for your leadership, Erika, and for your reflections and insights. It’s powerful to learn from other educators’ thought processes. I can imagine a whole literacy unit, utilizing the Good Times clip, Birth of a Nation, A Young Person’s History of the United States, current resistance movements, too. TASC aligned and so relevant.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Zen. What a powerful piece by Erika Ewing. Great to hear of such good work being done by Erika and the CUNY Literacy Support Team!

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